Afghan women’s rights advocate Durani finding peace at MATC, Milwaukee

Mark Feldmann,

April 08, 2022

MILWAUKEE – The Hanan Refugee Relief Center occupies the upstairs of a squat, cream brick building on a busy Milwaukee street, sharing space with an insurance office and pizzeria, and a narrow parking lot with a sports bar. On a cold March day, a mix of rain and snow pelted the second-story windows while the center happily hummed with activity. 

Women wearing hijabs — traditional headscarves — who had recently arrived from war-ravaged Afghanistan were learning English. Children were laughing in a nearby playroom. Volunteers were making sure people had rides home. And in the middle of it all, a group of Afghan women hovered around Milwaukee Area Technical College student Maryam Durani, chatting, asking her questions and having her translate. 

Durani, 37, is used to attracting attention. Hillary Clinton called her fearless. Michelle Obama draped a medal around her neck. Time magazine declared her one of the world’s most influential people in 2012. In Afghanistan, the ruling Taliban government tried to kill her — twice.

“She’s very inspirational,” said Sheila Badwan, vice president of the national Hanan Center, which opened in 2016 and helps refugees transition into their new communities by providing housing, food, medical relief, education and employment. “She wants to help her people. A lot of women look up to her. I know there are many women in Afghanistan who miss her very deeply.”

For years in Afghanistan, Durani was a tireless and fearless advocate for girls and women trying to survive a long war and find education and jobs under the restrictive Taliban regime. Today, she calls Milwaukee home and is taking English as Second Language (ESL) classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College, along with volunteering at the Hanan Center.

“Many people have left their families behind, have left their friends behind,” Durani said. “There, they were afraid of war. Here, they are afraid of the unknown. I just want to help.”

Durani is taking two ESL courses — Oral Communication and Reading & Writing — online, but has often attended in-person ESL classes and served as a translator and leader, said Bara Omari, instructional chair of MATC’s English as a Second Language program.

MATC has partnered with the Hanan Center to provide ESL classes to refugees who speak Pasho, Dari and Urdu, the prevalent languages of the country, Omari said.

“She interprets for the vast majority of Afghans locally and is already involved with various community-based organizations,” Omari said. “I was fortunate to witness Maryam making it a better world for women, ladies, and girls in one of my classes. She has served as an excellent mentor and role model to my students with lower language skills.”

Durani was born in Iran to Afghan refugees, the seventh of nine children. She lived in Iran, then Pakistan, then moved to Afghanistan when she was 18. She lived in Kandahar, about eight hours south of the Afghan capital of Kabul. The Kandahar province is often called the spiritual home of the Taliban, the group that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 through 2001, and once again controls the country.

Her father, an art professor, often spoke out about politics. Her mother routinely shared the family’s home with refugees, offering them food and blankets. Durani — who called Marie Curie one of her early role models — graduated from the Payame Noor and American University of Afghanistan with degrees in law, political science and business.

Durani also became a leader in the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Her activism started early. As a child Durani loved to play basketball. As an Irani refugee in Pakistan she could play, but only if she used the name of a native girl. Instead, Durani quit. “I wanted to play with my real name,” she said.

At 21, Durani became a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council and served a second term four years later. She was one of only four women on the council. She also founded the Kandahar Women’s Advocacy Network, started a women’s internet cafe, a women’s library, a fitness center for women, and opened the nation’s first women’s radio station.

The Taliban disdained her. They threatened her many times and twice attempted to assassinate her, she said. The international community, however, praised her. In 2012, she was named one of The World’s 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine, and won the International Women of Courage award. Durani received her honor from then-First Lady Michelle Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

“It feels good when people know me,” Durani said. “They recognize me as a person who is doing good things. I feel good that I think I am a good person.”

Last September, the U.S. military left Afghanistan for good and the nation became the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. When the Taliban seized Kabul, Durani fled and became one of 76,000 Afghans who came to the United States. She arrived in Virginia and was moved to Fort McCoy in central Wisconsin. She, along with her father and two brothers, were later relocated to Milwaukee.

Durani has settled into her new city, enjoying some peace and quiet after years of war and strife. But she often thinks about what will become of the country she left behind.

“Now that the fighting is over, the country needs educated and skilled people, but there is no one left. Those people are gone,” she said. “The Taliban also needs money and all the people to agree on what they want to do. The Taliban has neither.”

The Taliban continually insists that it will create a more ecumenical Afghanistan, with an inclusive government that protects the rights of women and ethnic minorities. Instead, the Taliban is trying to convince Afghans that girls and women don’t need to attend school or have jobs, Durani said. 

“They talk, but they don’t show,” Durani said. “Not just to me, but to the whole world. It’s important that the international community stay focused on what is happening there.”

If the Taliban fails to make life better for all Afghans, Durani fears she might never see her home again.

“If there ever becomes a good situation, I would return,” she said. “Afghanistan is my country. It’s my home, it’s my work, I have everything there, so of course I would go back. But I think that I will be here in this country for a long time.”

Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs; and transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.